Energy poverty and mortality in Ontario: are rising electricity prices putting the poor at risk?

The ice storm that knocked out electricity to parts of New Brunswick has killed people, at least indirectly, and has placed many thousands in mortal danger. The indirect deaths were from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. CO, when it is not being deliberately manufactured (it is a very valuable industrial chemical), is a product of incomplete combustion, and it is, as far as toxins are concerned, among the most prolific killers in human history.

How did the ice storm cause CO-related deaths? It knocked out the electricity, which is how a lot of people heat their homes in New Brunswick. When there is no electricity and it is cold outside, you will do practically anything to stay warm. This includes

  1. Running a camp stove or barbecue inside for heat.
  2. Running a gasoline powered emergency generator in a garage with its door partially closed.
  3. … and a lot of other things that involve burning stuff.

As spectacularly dire as the situation in New Brunswick is, you don’t need an ice storm to drive you to such desperation that you will try these desperate things to stay warm. You could have electricity that is so expensive that you shudder when the monthly bill arrives. The bill can be so high that you start searching for alternatives to paying it.

If you cannot afford to pay your power bill, how can you save electricity? By not using it. How can you save electricity when electricity is your main heating source and it’s freezing outside? If it gets cold enough inside, nobody can blame you for considering any or all of the things in the list above. Because when it gets cold enough inside, you are in a life or death situation anyway.

This is the reality in many parts of Ontario, especially the rural parts.

A purveyor of smoke detectors, CO detectors, and fire alarms, speaking at a Canadian Fire Alarm Association conference in 2014, pointed out that more CO poisoning deaths occur in December and January than other months.

I wonder how Decembers/Januarys have looked in terms of CO-related illnesses and deaths in rural Ontario in the past few years. Electricity retail prices, especially in rural Ontario, have skyrocketed in recent years.

I’ll look for some data and report back.

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